3D Printing at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held January 7th to 10th in Las Vegas, is a chance for the public to see the newest electronic products that are making their way to homes and nearby retailers in the near future.  This year’s show had several key themes, such as 4K Screen Resolution, mobile computing, and smartphones, but one of the most talked about technologies was 3D printing. Major announcements from MakerBot and 3D Systems created show buzz while highlighting next steps in the evolution of these technologies. The presence of 3D printing at CES gives InfoTrends time to reflect on how far 3D printing has come in the past few years, and what the future impact of these new product announcements will be.

While there were many 3D printing manufacturers at show, it was two major players in the market that made the biggest waves: MakerBot and 3D Systems. MakerBot, a wholly owned subsidiary of Stratasys as of Q3 2013, is the company’s business unit focused on personal and professional table top products. MakerBot, in their announcements, was focused on promoting their printers to a broad audience, from engineers to teachers and even for home use—providing something for everyone. The three machines unveiled at CES 2014 were the Mini, the new Replicator, and the largest 3D printer from MakerBot yet—the Z18. The Z18 is capable of printing objects up to 12” by 12” by 18”. The Mini, which is intended as an entry-level machine, has a sleek design that contains a touchscreen, Wi-Fi connectivity, and camera. In addition to printers, MakerBot is also trying to allow for more connectivity via mobile for their users. The company unveiled an app for iOS.

MakerBot’s announcements helped to continue their push towards the home / office use market vertical for 3D printing. In contrast, the new printers from 3D Systems focused on emerging opportunities for business segments. With just about 50 products in their line to date, 3D systems announced the ChefJet and ChefJet Pro. These printers are aimed at those in the culinary and hospitality industries and allow for the 3D printing of chocolate and sugar for use in confections. Both printers come with software geared at a user who is new to CAD software and contains templates for confections that users can easily build off of to create their own designs. While the ChefJet is an exciting prospect for the future of culinary artists, the true show stopper for 3D Systems is the CubeJet. The CubeJet costs less than $5,000 and can print full color with a process not yet seen on the market. The CubeJet takes advantage of a Xerox color inkjet technology to solidify a polymer resin with full color resulting in colorful 3D objects. The CubeJet represents the next steps in cost-effective, multi-material printing for small business and production.

In addition to 3D Systems and MakerBot, there were 17 other 3D printer manufactures at the show, including FormLabs, Mcor Technologies Ltd. and XYZ Printing Inc. These companies, however, did not make any major announcements at CES. New entrants into the market, such as AIO Robotics and FSL3D, were present at the show to demo their 3D printers and discuss their future commercialization plans. In the case of FSL3D, their efforts have been funded by Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website. Crowdfunding is a common method to bring a 3D technology to market among new entrants.

3D printer hardware units were not the only 3D printing themed items at the show; there were also several companies at CES that demonstrated the increasing number of standalone software as well as online and scanning applications that can be used with 3D printers. Intel was probably the largest company that demonstrated software and scanning technology for 3D printing. During their showcase, they demoed a new convertible laptop-tablet with a built-in 3D scanner. An Intel employee scanned an item, adjusted the model using Intel software, and then printed the model using a 3D Systems printer. This 3D scanner will be available in all laptop computers from Intel by summer of 2014. Compact and mobile scanning of objects was a big theme among vendors for 3D printing at CES. Matterform demoed their compact portable scanner, which allows for full color scans.

Software for 3D printing is becoming more user-friendly as vendors continue to target the consumer market. As a result, there are more user-friendly software tools that were seen at CES. One that was particularly interesting was Leopoly, which allows users to go on their website, make an account, and design their own 3D objects online. The browser-enabled online tool resembles something closer to a Microsoft Paint interface rather than a CAD program, which is much less intimidating to a novice compared to a CAD design program (usually requiring advanced skills).

CES 2014 provided a window into the future – where 3D technology can become a part of our everyday life. However this utopian future of a 3D printer in every home is tempered by the fact that the 3D technologies are not uniform. Namely, 3D printers use a range of core technologies to create different objects for example, fused filament, sterolithography, and sintering. These various processes rarely exist in a single device. So printing chocolate, or a new coffee mug will require users to own multiple devices which is unlikely. Instead, it is more likely that many consumers  will turn to a service provider or online store to produce the 3D item that they want created for them. This type of service model is already very active in the 3D printing community and can be seen in Shapeways, a digital marketplace where creators, consumers, and 3D printers converge to sell 3D printed items.

The advancements shown at CES 2014 will lead to better opportunities for those who want to incorporate 3D printing into their business for internal use or to become a service provider. As 2014 develops, it will be exciting to see how the products demoed at CES affect the current state of 3D printing.

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